HL Deb 07 July 1992 vol 538 cc67-8WA
Lord Mountevans

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will publish the report of the inquiry into river safety by Mr. John Hayes.

The Earl of Caithness: After the tragic collision between the "Bowbelle" and the "Marchioness" in August 1989 an investigation by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) was immediately mounted. Directions on two new safety measures were made straight away, and action put in hand on six further safety recommendations which were announced in the MAIB interim report 10 days later.

The MAIB final report could not be published until August 1991 because of possible prejudice to legal proceedings, but its 27 recommendations were published separately in July 1990. All were accepted immediately, and prompt action taken to put them into effect. All but eight recommendations have been implemented; five of those outstanding have been the subject of public consultation, and resultant legislation will be in force this autumn; one depends on international developments; and consideration of the remaining two, relating to the involvement of military helicopters in civil search and rescue, is not yet completed.

The MAIB report commented, with the acknowledged benefit of hindsight, that action taken by the department in the past had not gone as far as it should. The then Secretary of State for Transport felt that further investigation was needed and invited Mr. John Hayes, Secretary of the Law Society, to carry out an inquiry into the Department of Transport's handling of its responsibility for the safety of vessels on rivers and inland waters. We are today publishing his report.

While pointing out that, "The onus for the safety of travellers rests with the operators who undertake to provide a service for profit", Mr. Hayes concludes that the department "showed technical competence and dedication but lacked the vision and drive to lead the river marine industry into accepting that high safety standards and commercial success were compatible."

We are considering carefully all Mr. Hayes' 22 recommendations. Several concern the overall approach of the department to the exercise of its functions in this area. We are urged to take a much higher profile in promoting safety among a variety of fragmented operators and regulators. Conditions vary greatly in different parts of the country and we have therefore decided to establish a series of district marine safety committees throughout the UK to review for each area the way in which responsibilities for safety, rescue and accident prevention are presently distributed. The committees will identify risks and the scope for reducing them, assess the necessary new measures and ensure that systems are set up to support the arrangements.

Mr. Hayes made a number of suggestions concerning the way in which the Surveyor General's Organisation should in future exercise its responsibilities in connection with safety on rivers and at sea. Following recent reports by the National Audit Office and the Select Committee on Science and Technology in this House, we have had an internal review carried out. This has recommended that the organisation be reconstituted as a marine safety agency, responsible to the Secretary of State and with the degree of independence enjoyed by other Next Steps agencies. We are therefore putting in hand work to establish whether the Surveyor-General's Organisation should become a candidate for executive agency status. We will make a further announcement of the Secretary of State's conclusions in due course.

Mr. Hayes recommended that there should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames. The Government have given careful consideration to the recommendation but have concluded that a further review of this kind would not be justified. Action is, however, being taken to ensure that the lessons from the "Marchioness"/"Bowbelle" disaster have been fully assimilated. In addition, Thames rescue arrangements and equipment will also be examined by the relevant district marine safety committee as part of its wider review.

A full list of Mr. Hayes' recommendations and the Government's initial response to them is being placed in the Library.

Mr. Hayes' report makes a valuable contribution to the work we are doing to improve safety standards on our rivers and inland waterways, and we are most grateful to him for his work and that of his advisers, Captain Nic Rutherford and Mr. Mike Henderson.